SPOTLIGHT: BRENDAN BELL

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

After Tim Erixon had another strong game for the Connecticut Whale last week, including a personal North American pro best of three assists, veteran defenseman Brendan Bell offered kudos about how the Swedish rookie blueliner handled his reassignment from the parent New York Rangers.

“With young players, you’re here to learn, and it takes some time because (the AHL) isn’t an easy league to play in,” said Bell, who played one game with the Rangers after being signed as a free agent in the offseason and before being sent down a second time Oct. 25. “But you hone your craft and you bide your time, and the thing about Tim that’s been good is that he hasn’t been frustrated, he hasn’t pouted, he hasn’t done any of that stuff since he’s been here (Oct. 29). He’s just trying to learn and get better, and he’ll probably get there (the NHL) quicker because of that.”

Much the same about not pouting could be said for Bell, a healthy scratch on Nov. 13 at St. John’s, where he played his first two pro seasons. After sitting out a 4-3 loss to the IceCaps, Bell was reinserted into the lineup and made critical plays in three consecutive 3-2 victories in extra time.

First, Bell took a brilliant 80-foot lead pass from Mats Zuccarello, broke behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers defense and made a nifty deke before slipping the puck between goalie Kevin Poulin’s legs for his first goal with the Whale with only 6.8 seconds left in overtime.

The following afternoon in Providence, Bell scored midway through a dominating third period to kick-start the Whale from a two-goal deficit to a shootout win on goals by veteran John Mitchell and rookie Carl Hagelin, who were called up Thursday and assisted on new linemate Brian Boyle’s winner in their Rangers debuts Friday, a 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals. Mitchell then assisted on Hagelin’s first NHL goal in a 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

Three nights earlier against Portland, the Whale trailed by two goals late in the second period but rallied to win, as determined rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault scored a shorthanded goal with 1:11 left in regulation and then Bell picked up an Erixon rebound, patiently held the puck and slid a bad-angled shot past goalie Curtis McIlhinney with 1:39 to go in overtime to complete a hat trick of excellence.

It was a classic case of not getting upset about being benched, but responding to a challenge from coach Ken Gernander in as professional a manner imaginable.

“I knew things weren’t going very well for me, but it (sitting out) gave me a day to look at my game and try to get things going right,” said the 28-year-old Bell, who has been in 101 NHL games with Toronto, Phoenix and the Rangers and 387 AHL games with St. John’s, Toronto, San Antonio, Binghamton, Peoria, Syracuse and the Whale. “Maybe it gave me a little extra motivation, but I know in my own head that I just had to play better.”

Bell’s second overtime winner in five days helped improve his season totals to three goals and five assists, and being plus-4 in the three games after sitting out got him to even in the plus-minus rating in 13 games with the Whale. His eight points are tied for the team lead among defensemen with Erixon, who has one goal and seven assists in only 10 games since being reassigned on Oct. 29.

“I had a good chance early in the first period where (Zuccarello) made a really good pass backdoor to me, and I tried to take my time on that one, too, but (McElhinney) was kind of flopping and I hit the post,” Bell said after his overtime winner against Portland. “So this one I wanted to make sure that I really buried it. It was kind of a rolling puck, and it landed right on my stick. It was a wide open net, so I just took my time and tried to get it back there as quick as I could. … Things are kind of going my way right now. I didn’t have a very good game. I thought I could have been better. But the puck lands on my stick with a minute left in overtime with a wide open net, then I must be doing something right.”

Gernander agreed Bell has contributed on offense as he had hoped.

“Those are types of things that are strengths of (Bell): his offensive ability, his poise with the puck, he’s got good hands,” Gernander said. “There’s a lot in that package, and I guess that’s one of the areas where it has showed through.”

The overtime-shootout-overtime winning run made the Whale 3-2-0-1 when trailing after two periods. And they added to that impressive mark at Springfield on Saturday night, when Andreas Thuresson scored his second goal of the third period, off Stu Bickel’s shot and Ryan Bourque’s tip, with only 21.6 seconds left as the Whale rallied from a two-goal deficit to yet another 3-2 victory.

“I think that’s the good thing about having some older guys on your team,” said Bell, whose passion for hockey and appreciation for the NHL was reinvigorated while playing last season for EHC Biel in the Swiss League. “When you’re down a goal or when you’re pressing late, you can make plays. You can’t just fire pucks out. You can’t get nervous with it, and that’s the good thing about our club is having a bunch of older guys.

“When you’ve got some older guys and some talented guys, you’ve got to make plays with the puck. I think some of the guys have really taken charge later in games now.”

Especially Bell, named an alternate captain with Zuccarello when Wade Redden was injured and Kris Newbury suspended. Though Redden returned Friday night, Bell remained an alternate as a replacement for Mitchell. It shows what Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller thought of the nine-year veteran. Gernander even used Bell on a few shifts at center Friday and Saturday nights because the Whale had only 11 healthy forwards, though Zuccarello moved from wing to the middle in the third period when Thuresson scored his two goals to pull out the win.

Bell’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by teammates.

“Good players want the puck,” said defenseman Blake Parlett, whose goal ignited the Whale’s comeback against the Pirates. “He has wanted it in overtime, made good plays and has gotten the win for us.”

Parlett also noted a recent Whale turnaround in the lead department.

“At the start of the year we’d go into the third period with the lead and have trouble holding it,” he said. “But the last couple of games it has been the total opposite. We’ve been going into the third (period) down, and we’ve just come together as a team and rallied back.”

Major beneficiaries of the turnaround have been goalies Chad Johnson (5-3-2, 2.63 goals-against average, .905 save percentage, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (6-3-0, 2.88, .891, one shutout).

“Obviously losing leads was addressed quite a few times because we gave up a few early on,” Talbot said. “But going forward, I think we knew it was more of a mental thing. We’d get up and then we’d just take the foot off the gas pedal a little bit, so it was just a mental standpoint for us that when we get third-period leads that we need to hold them. And when we’re down in the third period that has to be our best period to come back and either force overtime or win it in the third.”

Gernander said perseverance and tenacity have been the keys to the Whale’s recent comebacks.

“They’ve had an unwillingness to relent,” he said. “For the most part, you have to have that same desperation when you’re holding a lead, but it has to be directed differently. It has to be more sound decisions, as opposed to a more attack mode when you’re trailing. It’s a little bit easier to be tenacious when you’re behind. You don’t want to be laid back, but your efforts or energies have to be directed in a sense of momentum.

“You don’t want to change your game. You don’t want to sit back. You don’t want to be passive. But you still have to make sound decisions. There’s certain things that you’d like to see as a coach that the guys do, whereas you have a little bit of leeway or liberty to take some risks when you’re trailing.”

The Whale also has been helped by the maturation of Erixon, who has improved steadily, capped by assisting on all three goals in the win over the Pirates.

“Timmy is really stepping up, playing some big minutes with Redden and (Jared) Nightingale out of the lineup,” Talbot said after the Portland game. “He has filled in really well anchoring the power play and now getting some penalty kill time, too. I think he has really stepped into that PK role. He has been great for us since he’s been here, and he’s only going to get better. He’s just a young guy (20), and we’re looking forward to that for sure.”

BOURQUE BROTHERS BOWL I

The sons of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, Chris and Ryan, are always more interested in team than self, but whenever “a first” is involved, it’s something special.

That certainly will be the case Tuesday night, when the Bourque brothers play against each other for the first time as the Hershey Bears (9-5-3-2) visit the XL Center. It’s the start of the Whale’s most hectic stretch this season: four games in six days, capped by visits to Providence and Springfield on Friday and Saturday nights and hosting defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton on Sunday at 3 p.m.

Bourque Bowl I matches two left wings with similar gritty styles but different roles. Chris, 25, is a six-year pro veteran who helped the Bears win three Calder Cups and was playoff MVP in 2010. Ryan, 20, is a rookie who specializes in defense, penalty killing and providing energy.

It also will be a bit emotional for Whale wing Francois Bouchard and Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who were traded for each other by the parent Washington Capitals and Rangers on Nov. 8. Bouchard, whose best friend on the Bears was Chris Bourque, played three seasons in Hershey and Washington and was a key contributor to Calder Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.

“I’m excited about playing against all my old buddies, so it’ll be fun but kind of weird, too,” said Bouchard, who has one goal in seven games with the Whale after being scoreless in nine games with the Bears. “I played with about 10 of the Hershey players for at least two years, so I know them really well, especially Chris, who was my best friend on the team and roommate on the road. The Bears are coming into Hartford on Monday night, so I’m having dinner with the Bourques and some of the other Hershey players who have texted me.

“But it’s business, too. Just because I know a lot of the guys doesn’t mean I’m not going to finish my checks. I know what a really good team they have, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us. But in the end, I just want to win the game and get those two points.”

Gernander said he and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller would pick Bouchard’s brain a bit for some info on the Bears, but they’d also still pre-scout via game films.

“It’ll be a little bit of both,” Gernander said. “He was there two weeks ago, but things might have changed since then. That’s the nature of the AHL. You want to stay current because everything is always a work in motion.”

Kundratek, the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2008, had been a healthy scratch for his last five games in Hartford. He is scoreless and plus-1 in four games with the Bears after having two assists and being minus-1 in seven games with the Whale and is also excited to play against his former mates.

“It will be like another game, playing simple, focused and be just like another game,” Kundratek told Tim Leone of The Patriot-News in Hershey. “I have friends there. They kind of texted me, and I was talking to them about it. They’re excited to play against me. I’m excited to play against them. It will be a great game.”

Chris Bourque (10 goals, 16 assists) is part of a potent line with frequent All-Star center and fellow alternate captain Keith Aucoin (4, AHL-high 24 assists) and former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane (8, 4, plus-12), the Bears’ captain. Aucoin had four assists in a 6-5 loss to Lake Erie on Saturday night to take over the AHL scoring lead. Bourque had three assists, and now ranks third in the league in points. Aucoin leads the AHL in power-play assists (11), and he and Bourque share the league lead in power-play points (13), one more than the Bears’ Jacob Micflikier (8, 12). Veteran wing Graham Mink (6, 10) is also dangerous, and Braden Holtby (5-4-1, 2.68, .891, one shutout) and Dany Sabourin (4-4-1, 3.21, .897, one shutout) have split the goaltending. The Bears lead the AHL in power-play efficiency (29.5 percent) and penalty minutes (23.16 per game). They are a solid 5-2-1-1 on the road, while the Whale is 4-1-0-1 at home.

The Whale (11-5-1-2) reached the quarter pole of their season Saturday night in dramatic fashion despite being shorthanded at forward. Kris Newbury’s four-game suspension ends Tuesday night, and he’ll give the Whale a 12th forward against the Bruins (8-13-1-1), who are on a 0-5-0-1 slide since a 3-2 victory over Worcester on Nov. 13.

INSPIRED WHITMORE NAMED REEBOK/AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK

After seeing teammates Corey Tropp, Zack Kassian, Paul Szczechura, T.J. Brennan and Brayden McNabb get called up by the Buffalo Sabres, Rochester Americans left wing Derek Whitmore had some added incentive to earn his own promotion.

Well, with his parents and about two dozen other family members and friends looking on, Whitmore put on quite a show in a 5-3 victory over Hamilton on Saturday night. In both the periods that the Amerks shot at the end where his relatives and friends were sitting, Whitmore scored two goals, the first two coming in the first 1:53. Then he broke a 3-3 tie with the other two goals in the third period, giving him five goals and a plus-3 rating in the two wins. The native of the Rochester suburb of Greece, N.Y., also had the insurance goal in a 4-2 victory over Albany on Friday night.

“It means a lot, it’s a special night,” Whitmore told Kevin Oklobzija of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester after his Saturday night outburst. “This is the team I idolized as a kid. My first hat trick, in an Amerk sweater, in this building, it’s very special. I think my dad threw a hat (after the third goal).”

And to think that Whitmore had never had a hat trick as a pro in 263 AHL games, 20 with the Amerks. But the 27-year-old got a “four-bagger” to become the first Amerk to score four goals in a game since current Sabres star Jason Pominville in October 2005, when he continued on to five.

Whitmore’s record night led to the five goals and a plus-3 rating in two games that earned him the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week award on Monday. Whitmore leads the Amerks with 10 goals and 16 points and is tied for the team lead among forwards with a plus-8. He signed as a free agent with the Sabres on March 26, 2008 and has 67 goals and 53 assists with Rochester and Portland.

Maybe now Whitmore will get the call that players such as Tropp and Kassian got.  But Whitmore is happy for his former teammates who joined the injury-riddled Sabres and has no bitterness about still being in Rochester.

“Obviously you want to be getting better every day and some day get to the big show,” said Whitmore, who was instrumental in Portland ousting the Whale in the first round of the playoffs in April. “But you can’t get frustrated over guys getting called up and you’re not. I’m here, I have a job to do, and I want to do as much as I can personally to help this team win in the American League.”

The 5,016 fans at the War Memorial loved the show, as did teammates such as center Mark Voakes, who was in Wolf Pack camp in 2010 and played most of the season with Greenville in the ECHL before being promoted to Portland.

“It’s as fun to watch for us as it is for everyone else,” Voakes said. “When a guy’s got a hot stick, get him the puck, period.”

HURRICANES, CAPITALS REPLACE MAURICE, BOUDREAU

Milwaukee Admirals first-year coach Kirk Muller was named coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, succeeding former Hartford Whalers coach Paul Maurice, who was fired Monday.

“Kirk is a proven leader and motivator, and he has strong communication skills,” Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford said in a statement. “He was a captain and a Stanley Cup winner as a player and did excellent work as a coach with the Canadiens and the Admirals. We feel confident that he is the right man to lead our team now and in the future.”

Muller, 45, was replaced by Ian Herbers, 44, an assistant with the Admirals for the last two-plus seasons who was in charge of the defense and penalty kill. Former Hurricanes wing Martin Gelinas, director of player development for the parent Nashville Predators, will help Herbers until a new assistant is hired.

Muller is the 12th person to serve as head coach for the Hurricanes franchise, and the third to be named since the team moved from Hartford to North Carolina in 1997. The native of Kingston, Ontario, had a 10-6-0-1 record with the Admirals after taking the job as head coach of the Nashville Predators’ top affiliate in July. He has now inherited a team that has lost 10 of its last 13 games to fall to 8-13-4 and into last place in the Southeast Division.

Muller played 19 seasons in the NHL, made six All-Star teams and helped the Montreal Canadiens win their last Stanley Cup in 1993. Ironically, his first game as Hurricanes coach will be Tuesday night at home against the division-leading Florida Panthers, whose first-year coach is former Whalers star right wing and captain Kevin Dineen, a leading contender for NHL Coach of the Year.

Maurice’s firing came about 90 minutes after AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau was let go by the Washington Capitals and replaced by Dale Hunter. Maurice’s ouster means every team in the division except Tampa Bay, which hired Guy Boucher in 2010, has changed coaches since spring.  … Zach Boychuk scored twice as the Charlotte Checkers beat Milwaukee 3-2 on Saturday night, ending the Admirals’ AHL-record road point streak at 23 games. It was the Admirals’ first regulation loss on the road since being shut out 3-0 by the Manitoba Moose on Jan. 13.

KUDOS TO WILD FOR TRIBUTE TO BOOGAARD

Major kudos to the Minnesota Wild for their Derek Boogaard Tribute before the Calgary Flames rallied for a 5-2 victory Sunday night. Boogaard played five seasons with the Wild before signing a four-year, $6.5-million contract with the Rangers on July 1, 2010. He had one goal, one assist and 45 penalty minutes in 22 games with the Rangers before sustaining a season-ending concussion in a fight with Ottawa Senators defenseman Matt Carkner on Dec. 9, 2010. It proved to his final game, as he died of a lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone on May 13 at the age of 28.

Until his death, Boogaard had remained active with Defending the Blue Line, a charity that helps the children from military families stay involved with the game while their parents are fighting overseas. A 10-minute pregame ceremony included a highlight video of his best plays, hits and fights and his extensive work in the community, especially with kids. Former teammates gave flowers, hugs and handshakes to his family on the ice, and there were taped memories from ex-teammates, including the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust. Gaborik and Prust also played with Boogaard on the Wild.

The Wild donated $10,000 and the Boogaard family $6,750 to Defending the Blue Line, and the family also distributed 150 tickets to military personnel. The Wild also donated tickets for future games. Well done, Wild, and if you want to see the touching ceremony, visit www.nhl.com. … St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock returned to Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday for the first time since being fired by the Blue Jackets and left a 2-1 winner, thanks to David Backes’ goal at 7:49 of the third period and Brian Elliott’s 23 saves. Hitchcock, the winningest coach in Blue Jackets history, who guided them to their only playoff berth in 2009 before being fired a season later, had insisted his first game in Columbus was “no big deal” because it was third time he had returned to a city where he had coached. He was more satisfied that the Blues have won three in a row and are 7-1-2 since he replaced Davis Payne, fired on Nov. 6 after a 6-7-0 start. Under Hitchcock, the Blues have moved with 14th to fourth in the Western Conference. “There’s a lot of players on the other side I’m close with,” Hitchcock told the media after the game. “I have a healthy respect for those players because I would say 10 of those guys went through the wall for me.” … Philadelphia Flyers standout defenseman Chris Pronger, the second overall pick by the Whalers in 1993, will have surgery on his left knee on Tuesday and have to sit out for a month. Pronger, 37, who already had missed the last four days because of a virus, and defenseman Andreas Lilja, who will miss about six weeks with a high ankle sprain sustained Friday against Montreal, will be placed on long-term injured reserve. This is the third extended absence for Pronger this season. He missed six games after getting hit in the eye with a stick during an Oct. 24 game against Toronto and has 12 points in 13 games. If he returns four weeks from the date of surgery, Dec. 27, he’ll miss another 12 games. If his rehab runs longer, he could miss the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Rangers on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Flyers also placed forward Andreas Nodl on waivers and recalled top forward prospect Brayden Schenn and defenseman Kevin Marshall from the Adirondack Phantoms. Schenn returns after a three-game stint in the AHL after being out a month with a broken foot. Schenn could see lots of ice time, as forwards Jaromir Jagr (lower body) and James van Riemsdyk (upper body) remain questionable for Friday’s game. … Rangers players Henrik Lundqvist and former Wolf Pack standouts Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi unveiled the team’s jersey for the Winter Classic on Monday. The jerseys can be viewed at www.newyorkrangers.com, are available for pre-order at Shop.NHL.com and will be available for purchase at Madison Square Garden beginning Dec. 5. … Canadiens wing and New Canaan native Max Pacioretty, who starred at New Canaan High and Taft School in Watertown, had a phone hearing with the NHL on Monday for his hit on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang in the third period of the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime victory Saturday night. No penalty was called on the play, and Letang returned to score the winning goal.

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